I’m a graduate of Trent University. The largest lecture hall at that place is called Wenjack Theatre and I can remember in the early days of my first year – decades ago – looking at the plaque at the main doors to the hall and reading that it was named in honour of Charlie Wenjack, an Ojibway, who died at age 12 in 1966 while running away from a native residential school in northern Ontario.
It was late October and he was wearing a cotton windbreaker. He probably died of exposure. He was found on the side of the railway tracks between the school in Kenora and his home community of Ogoki Post deep in the bush.
His parents didn’t know he was dead until the bush plane landed at Ogoki Post with his body and his two sisters – also students at the same school.
When I read the plaque, I remember a sense of sadness coming over me. Like myself at the time, he was probably homesick and wanted to go home. And for a long time, that’s what I thought was simply the case.
It would be later that that I would come to realize that homesickness would only be one part of the reason that Charlie Wenjack decided to run toward home. Even in those last years of the native residential schools system, abuses were still occurring. Physical and sexual abuse. Psychological and cultural abuse. Children like Charlie, who had only been at the school a couple of years and whose first and only tongue to that point was Ojibway, would be punished – often physically – if they were caught speaking any language other than English.
Even on the playground. Or at the bedside of a sick friend.
I recently re-read the 2nd chapter of Ian Adams book “The Poverty Wall” entitled “Why Did Charlie Wenjack Die?”published in 1970. While the language is slightly dated when talking about our native sisters and brothers, its description of what happened to Charlie and the social background to all of that is still a compelling read. It’s online – look it up.
The abuses of these institutions have been well documented and many of us have heard stories that have scorched our souls. Over the last number of years the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has been travelling the country listening to stories of those who were residents of these schools, those who were staff and those who have a vested interest in getting to the truth of what happened – like the United Church of Canada
The commission was modeled after the same exercise that then President Nelson Mandela, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s leadership, put in place in South Africa after Apartheid ended.
The United Church has confessed its involvement in the abuses that took place in the native residential schools that it managed and operated. We have formally apologized in 1986 for imposing European culture upon First Nations’ peoples and in 1998 for our complicity in the residential schools system. We have paid millions of dollars in reparations and we continue to attempt to ensure that what happened will never be forgotten.
In the next few weeks the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will report to Parliament. It will not be an easy thing to hear. Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the commission, has given us that heads up. But as a nation, we need to be part of this exercise.
May the chain of abuse be forever broken.